Goal-setting, whether in running or in life as a whole, is a strange business. Much of it is an exercise in measuring ourselves against others (and really ourselves), and much of the deeper reason for it, I suspect, is that overarching desire to give our lives meaning.
If we never try or strive, what’s the point?
And still: If we’re setting goals that are lower than the best or even deliberately attainable, what’s the point as well?
As this applies to running, the vast majority of us who sign up for races do so with no intention that we are going to win the race. We are not professional runners. But while most of us are merely happy to finish a race of any distance, many of us also set relative goals for the time in which we’d like to finish that are minutes, if not hours, off of the winning time.
This brings me to the Lake Minnetonka Half Marathon, which was this past Sunday. I’ve never really been one to set time goals, instead trying to let the race evolve and enjoy the process. An exception was Grandma’s Marathon in 2012, when I was determined to run a sub-4 hour time (and barely made it with 55 seconds to spare).
Much has changed since that race; as a lot of you know by now, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2014. As I struggled with the original symptoms that led to the diagnosis in February last year, there was a period of about 3 weeks when running just wasn’t possible. I was physically exhausted, with a side dish of other weird effects. Even as things gradually improved and I started slowly running again, I would only go a few miles at a time at a 10-minute mile pace. That was as much as my body would comfortably tolerate.
Since then, of course, I’ve recovered enough to the point that training for another marathon felt possible. And along the way, perhaps as an offshoot of a diet that keeps me a few pounds lighter and gives me more energy, I’ve noticed that there are days when I feel faster than ever.
Again, fast is a relative term – for me, it means sometimes running comfortably at an 8-minute mile pace for several miles; the best distance runners are almost twice as fast. But compared to the 10-minute miles I was grinding out a year ago or the 8:30/9 minute mile pace I was used to when I was training for previous marathons, it is fast.
But going into the Lake Minnetonka race, I wasn’t sure what to reasonably expect or try to do. As such, I set the modest goal of a sub-2 hour half marathon, with the likely expectation that I would also be under 1 hour, 55 minutes. I had never previously run a half in under 1:55, so that likelihood was exciting.
On raceday, I lined up with the 1:55 pace group at the start and set out for 13.1 miles. It’s hard to tell exactly how you are going to feel until you get a little ways into a run, but after the first mile or so, I decided that the 1:55 pace felt a little slow. I proceeded to catch up to the 1:50 group. And not long after that, I decided that if I could get ahead of the 1:50s and stay there, I would break that mark and feel great about it.
I checked my pace at every mile and, after 5 miles, realized I was running at about an 8-minute mile pace. Quick math told me that if I kept that up for the whole thing, I would finish in just under 1:45. But there’s a danger in extrapolating that far out, as all runners know. You generally don’t feel the same at mile 5 as you do at mile 10 and beyond. I told myself that if I still felt good and had 8-minute pace going at mile 10, I would think about pushing for 1:45.
By that point, I ended up being a little off the pace … but I felt great. If I could cover the final 3.1 miles in 23 minutes or so, faster than 8-minute miles but not unreasonable, I could run a 1:45 half marathon. With 2 miles left, I really turned it on. I felt strangely fine and covered the final 2.1 miles in 15 minutes, finishing the race in 1:44:29 – a personal best by more than 10 minutes.
Will I ever run another 1:45 half marathon? Maybe, maybe not. Could I have run faster on Sunday? I’ll never know, though going out slower and gradually building speed is good advice for anyone.
When Julie and I run Grandma’s full marathon in June, we’ll go at her pace and I’ll be perfectly happy with that, too, because the point of that race for both of us is to run it and finish it together.
But on the shuttle bus ride back to my car, I thought about my run. It’s a full 40-45 minutes off the pace of elite runners, which blows my mind. While I was in unfamiliar territory (finishing 344th out of more than 2,600 runners when usually I’m in the middle of the pack), there were still 343 people who ran faster than me in this singular race on easily my fastest day.
I circled back on a simple question: Can you still take pride in something that is only measured against your own accomplishments?
And I arrived at a simple answer: Sure you can. That’s pretty much the definition of life. We can only strive to be our best selves, no matter what.